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[META] On regional releases and disrupting international fandoms

Since a few weeks back, some blogosphere hand-wringing has been going on about how Game of Thrones is the most pirated show of 2012. The second season has been downloaded via torrents about 25 million times.

Many people in the discussion are balking at HBO’s refusal to offer legal streaming or downloading options for a wildly popular show that everybody and their dog wants to see. Especially because the news about Game of Thrones‘ “top” position in the torrenting charts comes after months of reports about how HBO thinks digital-only TV viewing is a temporary phenomenon and is determined to keep its content accessible only to cable subscribers. Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal made a much-tweeted comic about he tried to pay to download Game of Thrones through all imaginable means, then gave up and found a torrent.

I had a similar experience, and many of the options Inman mentions aren’t even available to me because I don’t live in the US. As Forbes and a bunch of honest people on Reddit also pointed out, it’s incredibly hard to see Game of Thrones legally if you live in a country where getting hold of HBO is impossible or prohibitively expensive. I haven’t managed to figure out which it is over here in Japan; this provider claims to offer HBO in its $65-a-month cable package, but the channel isn’t in the actual lineup. Since TV was out, my only hope were Amazon or iTunes. Amazon doesn’t have digital downloads of Game of Thrones at all. iTunes teased me with the possibility of buying the first season, until I got to the last step in the purchasing process and was told that my Belgian iTunes account wasn’t allowed to buy this show. At that point, I felt like I was being quite thoroughly mocked.

Now, I haven’t gone on to get Game of Thrones via a torrent. I love the books and what little I’ve seen of the series, but I’m not so fannish about it that I feel a desperate need to watch it together with my US friends. The same goes for The Avengers. About three quarters of all the people I know online are going wild about it. I want to see it, very much, but it won’t be in Japanese cinemas until August.* Maybe I’ll still be fired up about it enough to want to see it on the big screen then, but maybe I’ll just wait until it shows up in iTunes, because my enthusiasm will probably have dampened quite a bit by then.

But while I’m just lukewarm enough about Game of Thrones and The Avengers to wait until they reach me in a legal way, I have used less than legal means to get my hands on certain other shows. I was in the fandoms of those other shows, and not watching the new canon content with my fellows would have made it incredibly hard for me to continue participating in those fandoms. Fans who are really, deeply invested in a show that’s broadcast only overseas aren’t going to get off the internet, let all the initial excitement pass them by, and wait for the DVD to come out in their country months later. That’s not how it works anymore. In my academic writing, I constantly have to remind myself to talk about “English-speaking fans” or “Japanese-speaking fans” when discussing online fandom, because it’s often impossible to draw any national lines. Limiting releases to certain regions of the world at certain times may have been doable in the past. But now that very many fans are on the internet, that sort of commercial strategy is seen as an annoyance that must be dealt with, lest it disrupt the smooth and happy functioning of the fandom. When a new piece of canon comes out, the first order of business is often to get everybody up to speed by spreading around downloads or streams of the new episode for those fans who couldn’t access the “main” broadcast for whatever reason. The content must flow, or the squee can’t commence.

I see just that happening with The Legend of Korra, which I wrote about before. Nickelodeon tries hard to interact closely with Korra fans: there’s an official Tumblr, there was a contest before the premiere that allowed fans to see the first two episodes early, and the network puts up a high-quality stream of every episode a day or so after it’s broadcast. However, those streams are region-locked, as were the contest reward episodes. Non-US fans can participate in the contests, but the fact that they have to be in the US to actually see their prizes is buried somewhere in the rulebook. For all its laudable efforts to connect with fans, Nickelodeon still ignores that many of the truly enthusiastic Korra fans it’s talking to via Facebook and Tumblr are not actually in the US, and that for them, too, the very point of watching media is to watch it together with others and share in the excitement. To be there when “it” happens.

Are people being too demanding? It’s certainly asking a lot for media companies to adapt to a “give everybody everywhere everything now” landscape. This environment is wildly different from what companies are used to, and it’s not surprising that it takes them a long time to find their place in it.

But fans who have those high expectations aren’t spoiled brats or entitled freetards. They just expect their commercial media to behave like the rest of the internet. It takes me only minutes to put a video online in a place where the whole world can see it and share it around. There are reasons why HBO or Nickelodeon don’t do the same, some of them very good reasons, but those reasons simply don’t make sense for internet users who notice that everything except their commercial media content is easily accessible.

After years of waiting for media companies to catch on and get used to YouTube, their failure to distribute things in a way that fits with how the rest of the internet works becomes more and more incomprehensible to their international customers. As Techdirt noted when Fox let “Touch” premiere in about 100 countries at the same time earlier this year, it’s rather mind-boggling that a show (one show!) being released simultaneously across much of the globe is cause for excitement in the year 2012. I understand what’s behind the decision to region-lock online Korra episodes, but that action still seems utterly daft to me. I can’t imagine that anyone at Nickelodeon honestly expected that fans wouldn’t unlock those episodes by any means necessary, so the fact that they locked them in the first place seems just annoying and pointless. People see that fansub groups can make and distribute a high-quality translation of an anime episode only days after it airs in Japan, and on a certain level, it makes no sense to them that commercial overseas anime distributors can’t provide the same speed and quality as a handful of amateurs. Yes, there are some good reasons for those delays, reasons that many internet users often don’t seem to get. But the reason they don’t get it is because they can’t imagine anymore where the problem might possibly lie. No amount of public education of the kind that copyright enforcement-oriented agencies keep clamoring for is going to make this situation look any less absurd to regular people on the internet.

Many have argued that in this day and age, it’s nonsense to release media with any sort of locks on them – among other reasons, because people will easily dodge those locks and learn nothing except that media companies like to annoy them. In the case of media companies trying to connect with international fans and persuade them to watch content legally, it may help if they kept in mind that people on the internet aren’t just a mass of individuals who each might decide start pirating at unpredictable moments for their own personal nefarious reasons. When and why an individual wants to watch a show enough to torrent it has a great deal to do with who they’re watching it with. Today, keeping a show inaccessible to parts of the world often means throwing a wrench (an easily removable but irritating wrench) into the social interactions of the very fans one is trying to court. It seems unrealistic to expect that people will have no problem with international release schedules that disrupt their most important socializing times, for no good reason they can discern.

(*Hollywood movies often seem to come many months late to Japan. I’m not an expert on the Japanese film or cinema business, so I don’t know why this is. My film-oriented colleages at university didn’t know either. Any information would be much appreciated.)